Eyes On: England v Barbarians

Eyes On: England v Barbarians

Sunday at Twickenham saw the start of the latest Summer Tests window with Engalnd’s annual fixture against the Barbarians. England were missing a number of players due to their appearances in the Premiership final the day before, and a handful of other players were either rested or unavailable through injury, but Eddie Jones was still able to put together an attractive looking squad, however it paled in comparison next to the big names Pat Lam had pulled together to represent the Barbarians. Whereas Saturday’s final would be described as solid play, this was certainly spectacular, with the Barbarians scoring 9 tries to win 45-63, a record score against England at Twickenham.

The squad

Before anything, I must admit I was surprise by some of Eddie Jones’ selections for this match. I have really wanted to see Elliot Daly given a chance at 15 and was thrilled to see him given the shirt when the team was announced. That thrill did not last long as I realised that Mike Brown was still in the XV, playing on the wing. Brown has been a wonderful servant for England over the years, but I don’t understand why Eddie Jones seems to consider him almost undroppable. In this match, he did not have the pace to cope with Josua Tuisova and did not provide much in attack to merit his inclusion. It’s not as if he was even the only option available as Denny Solomona was on the bench and Jason Woodward was left out of the 23 altogether. The Mike Brown as a winger experiment needs to stop now, hopefully Eddie realised this.

I was also really disappointed to see Ben Youngs, George Ford, Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler starting this game given the options available on the bench. I appreciate the 4 of them, along with Brown, made up most of the experienced contingent, but what better game to blood young talent like Robson, Cipriani, Genge and Wilson than against the Barbarians, in a match where the result is less important so the pressure is (somewhat) off. Ford had a good game in attack, but against a Barbarians team that is never going to have an incredibly organised defence I would expect nothing less from him. The real disappointment in this game was Robshaw. A man who has always been considered such a reliable tackler and defender, Robshaw missed a number of tackles in this game and many of them proved costly on the scoreboard. With Billy Vunipola returning to the England fold and a number of younger back row players impressing when given the chance, Robshaw’s days in the starting XV could be numbered.

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This match was Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe’s last before retiring. He led the Barbarians to a record victory and even got on the scoresheet by taking the final conversion

Odd subs

Tying in somewhat to the last point, I thought some of Eddie Jones’ replacements were odd. Henry Trinder may not have had the best start to the game defensively, but let’s be honest no one in an England shirt did! However as England started to improve, it looked like he was beginning to grow into the game, until he was removed for a Head Injury Assessment after 27 minutes, with Cipriani coming on at 15 and Daly moving into the centre. Daly had started the game relatively well but I felt his influence waned after this positional change, while Cipriani had a couple of good moments but not enough to really catch the eye as an option at 15 in the Tests. It was reported by the Sky Sports commentary that Trinder passed his HIA, yet Jones decided not to bring him back onto the pitch. For someone who has had such a torrid time with injuries and finally put together a wonderful season, to be yanked off so early after the whole team started poorly is awful and I really hope that the commentary was wrong and Trinder in fact failed his HIA. I’m starting to get the feeling that he will not be given a fair shot at the England 13 shirt while Eddie Jones is in charge, much like Alex Goode and the 15 shirt.

I was also shocked to see Zach Mercer removed so early in the second half by Eddie Jones. In case you haven’t noticed from previous articles, I am a big fan of the Bath number 8 and thought that while he was having a relatively quiet game – aside from his try, where he ran a brilliant support line as Daly went through a gap – he was not struggling in the same way Robshaw was. Mark Wilson looked decent off the bench and I do not begrudge him the game time, but I just feel that England would have benefitted more both on the day and long term from keeping Mercer on the pitch and replacing Robshaw.

Making a splash

The scrip almost wrote itself here: Chris Ashton rejected by Eddie Jones so moves to Toulon, breaks the Top 14 record, starts at fullback against England at Twickenham and scores 2 tries in the opening 10 minutes on the way to a 25-minute hat-trick.

Though his defence wasn’t at the best in this game (whose was if we’re being honest?), his attacking play was wonderful and after being gifted the first try by Josua Tuisova he scored 2 wonderful tries, the first a lovely chip over Daly and the second a classic Ashton try getting on the shoulder to take an offload. His great running lines also set up Finn Russell for his try and he was close to a 4th try but couldn’t get downward pressure on the ball, while George Ford also tracked back well to make a last ditch tackle in the first half.

I would argue that he is a better player now than he was in his heyday with England and it is a shame that Eddie Jones did not consider him before his move to Toulon. That said, now that he is at Toulon I completely agree that he is ineligible to play for England. I know a lot of people are clamouring for him to play, but if he can’t guarantee release to England whenever we need it why should he be picked? The rule about playing in England has been clear for years and, as good as he is, I would not consider his form an exceptional circumstance given the options available throughout the back 3.

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

May 2018 Rugby Ramble

Legend of the game

It was announced right at the start of the month that England fullback and legend of the game Danielle “Nolli” Waterman would be retiring from international rugby. A star of the women’s game, Nolli made her England debut in 2003 and went on to earn 82 caps for the Red Roses, playing in 4 World Cups and scoring in the 2014 final. Having also spent some time with the England 7s team, her time with the 15s has been a little more limited in recent years, but she has still been consistently one of the best players on the park whenever she has featured and finishes her career with only 1 loss in the 6 Nations to her name – against France this year. She has been an outstanding servant to England Rugby and women’s rugby – in fact rugby as a whole! – and it will be a shame to no longer see her representing England. With the Barbarians having now created a women’s team I sincerely hope she becomes a regular in this while she continues to play at club level.

The good news for England fans is that her replacement already seems to be in place. Ellie Kildunne has had a wonderful season for Gloucester-Hartpury and England. She has pace, footwork, good handling skills and is also strong enough to hold her own against larger opposition. Having trained and played alongside Nolli with England this year, she will have learned so much and it is possible that in 15 or so years we may be looking back on an equally impressive career.

Congratulations Nolli and thank you for everything!


Qualification nightmare

It feels like every time I write one of these recently we end up coming back to the absolute ****storm caused by Vlad Iordachescu’s refereeing of Spain v Belgium’s Rugby Europe Championship match that denied the Spanish qualification to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

It was eventually announced this month that the match will not be replayed as Belgium successfully argued that having Romania officials for this match is no different than a team of officials from 1 country in the 6 Nations refereeing a match in the tournament between 2 other teams. In my eyes, that is absolute bollocks as this wasn’t just any old match, but a match that decided whether Romania or Spain qualified for the World Cup. When there is such a prize at stake, neutrality is a must and I would not call Iordachescu and his team wholly neutral in the circumstances.

On top of that, Spain have been deducted 40 points from the Rugby Europe Championship, with Belgium and Romania being deducted 30 points each, for fielding ineligible players. This means that Russia have qualified automatically, while Germany – who were due to have a playoff to avoid relegation – will now have a playoff with Portugal to play Samoa in the next round of qualification.

While I agree that punishments must be meted out for fielding ineligible players, it just shows how difficult World Rugby have made player eligibility in the past. Moving forward something needs to be done to make sure someone else doesn’t unknowingly play for an international team as they were not aware they were already captured by another nation.


Get low

The above nightmare was not the only announcement from World Rugby this month, as they also announced recently that they will be trialling some new laws relating to high tackles in the upcoming U20s tournaments. There will be 2 separate trials taking place, 1 in the World Rugby U20 Championship and 1 in the World Rugby U20 Trophy. Per World Rugby’s announcement:

WORLD RUGBY U20 TROPHY

Law 9.13 The acceptable height of the tackle is reduced from the line of shoulders to below the nipple line.

The law will now read: A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the nipple line even if the tackle starts below the nipple line.

WORLD RUGBY U20 CHAMPIONSHIP

Tackles that increase the risk of head injury will be cited.

The match citing commissioner will issue a “High Tackle Warning” to THE TACKLER WHO IS DEEMED TO BE UPRIGHT (NOT BENT AT THE WAIST)

A tackler will be deemed to be upright when:

  • They are in an approximate upright standing position
  • They have made no clear attempt to lower the height of contact with the ball carrier to avoid the head or shoulders of the ball carrier
  • There is no knee flexion and minimal bending at the waist which brings the head into a dangerous position for collision with ball carrier’s head or shoulder
  • The high tackle warning will be issued in one of four types of incidents:
    • All HIGH-CONTACT PENALTIES, irrespective of sanction, during matches
    • All TACKLES THAT RESULT IN AN HIA, irrespective of whether to tackler or ball-carrier
    • High tackles that are missed during the match
    • Accidental clear and obvious head to head and head to shoulder contact

Sanctions:

The High Tackle Warning is issued ONLY IF THE TACKLER IS UPRIGHT, AND THERE IS CLEAR AND OBVIOUS HEAD CONTACT for either player

Each High Tackle Warning carries ‘one strike’. When ‘two strikes’ (two High Tackle Warnings) have been issued, a player will receive a one-match suspension (a right to appeal will operate)

High Tackle Warnings also form part of the usual accumulation of sanctions, including Citing Commissioner Warnings (CCWs) and yellow cards. A strong education element will be run in parallel, explaining that this player welfare initiative protects the tackler and their opponents.

While I understand the need for increased safety both at professional and grassroots level, I think the lowering of the tackle height will become a difficult one to police, while it is already hard enough for the tallest players to get low enough to tackle the shorter player as they try to step around them. The idea of a “High Tackle Warning” from a citing commissioner seems a good idea though as it will encourage better technique whilst it also appears to be fair to the tackler by looking at the effort they have made to lower the tackle. I just wonder if 2 strikes for a ban will be a bit too strict over a season of weekly club rugby, though if this works well in the World Rugby U20 Championship then I would be interested to see how well this works over a season of club rugby.

Jared Payne has not played since the Lions Tour due to repeated headaches and it has now been announced that he has been forced to retire aged 32 and take up a coaching role with Ulster, this is a timely reminder of how important player safety is. It may be softening up the game to a degree, but players are larger, stronger and faster than ever so anything that improves a player’s safety should be considered.


WRUWelsh woes

I was so happy when the Welsh squad for the June Tests was announced with Josh Adams included. He had such a good season for Worcester, finishing joint top try scorer in the Premiership, but was not given enough of a chance by Warren Gatland before being dropped during the 6 Nations. I was hoping that this June, he would get the chance to prove himself. Unfortunately, that chance will have to wait as he has been dropped from the squad along with Tom Francis and Luke Charteris.

The reason the players were dropped? As Wales are playing their opening match of the tour outside the international window, Premiership clubs are not forced to release their players, so the 3 players will be unavailable for the 1st Test and as such Gatland does not see the point in taking them. While I feel it is a bit pathetic of the Premiership Clubs to not release their players, especially considering Adams and Charteris have not even had any club matches to play the last couple of weeks, I put the blame firmly on the WRU.

The international windows are clearly defined, yet for some reason the WRU continue to arrange matches outside these periods and then complain that their players are not available to them. It is not a hard job to stick to a designated period of time, but for them it seems near-impossible. I really sympathise with Adams especially and hope that he is a regular in the Welsh XV soon.

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

The Premiership and Pro14 seasons came to an end on Saturday with the showpiece events at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium respectively. In the Premiership final, table-toppers Exeter started well but were unable to make the breakthroughs needed to defeat a clinical Saracens side, while a late Scarlets fightback at the Aviva was not enough to deny Leinster a Pro14/Champions Cup double.

I was at Twickenham with a few friends so was delayed watching the Pro14 final until late on Sunday, but also watched the Premiership final again to see if there was anything I missed from my position in the Twickenham stands. Keep an eye out over the next week (hopefully) for my write-up on our trip to HQ.

Before I get into this, a quick congratulations to Wayne Barnes, who was refereeing his 200th Premiership match on Saturday. He is a wonderful referee and in my opinion one of the best – if not the best – referees in the world at the moment.

Exeter 10 – 27 Saracens

Exeter were so effective against Newcastle in the semi-final with their possession-heavy attacking style to draw in the defence and create the space to exploit out wide. When they started the game with 100% possession for the first 9 and a half minutes I genuinely thought that they were on their way to a victory. However, the Saracens defence never allowed themselves to get drawn too narrow and dealt with everything the Chiefs threw at them. What really disappointed me was the fact that Exeter didn’t appear to have a Plan B. They kept trying to hit it up the middle and though they were able to hold possession relatively well they were not making much ground and when they went wide they had not earned it and were easily shut off on most occasions. Joes Simmonds did not have a bad game but he just couldn’t find a way to break down Saracens, and when Gareth Steenson came on in his place early in the second half he had only a little more luck. Exeter have a wonderful squad and most teams will struggle to deal with their usual tactics, but if they want to regularly win silverware, they need to have some backup tactics for teams that can deal with their usual style of play.

finalcongratWhat a performance by Saracens! Their defence was nigh-on impregnable, refusing to be drawn narrow while still effectively closing up the middle of the pitch. Their discipline was important too and they only gave away 2 kickable penalties in the first half before building up enough of a points difference in the second that Exeter were unable to rely on kicks at goal. In fact, Gareth Steenson’s try was the only time the Sarries try line really felt at risk and that was helped by Schalk Brits’ yellow card meaning a back (in this case Chris Wyles) had to be sacrificed to bring Jamie George back on from the scrum. With Paul Gustard leaving England for Harlequins following the South Africa tour, Eddie Jones could do much worse than asking Sarries’ defence coach Alex Sanderson to join the national team as Gustard’s replacement.

Leinster 40 – 32 Scarlets

They may not always be the most attractive team to watch, but Leinster are so effective and know how to win games. They have such depth in their squad but more than that, they adapt to the environment and the team they are playing against. Johnny Sexton is so used to the Aviva Stadium from matches with Leinster and Ireland so knows exactly how to deal with the conditions and after seeing the struggles the Scarlets were having under the high ball (more on that below), he continued to pepper them with high balls throughout the match, while Rob Kearney – one of the best in the world under the high ball – and Jordan Larmour put heavy pressure on the catcher every single time. As well as the high balls, Sexton also controlled the territory with some wonderful kicking to touch, including one penalty he put out about 3 metres from the try line, while his range of passing took advantage of any gaps in the Scarlets defence. They may be losing a couple of players this summer, but I find it hard to bet against them defending their Pro14 title next season.

Scarlets play such sexy rugby, but sometimes they just need to be a bit more pragmatic. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies are incredible attacking players, but they are not currently the best at playing the less sexy but possibly more important territorial game. Much like how Exeter need to create a Plan B, the Scarlets need to do so as well. On top of that, some players need to work on individual weaknesses over the summer. Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny failed to cope with 8 high balls throughout the course of the match, immediately gifting Leinster possession and territory. Winning against the big teams both in club and international rugby requires players in the back 3 that can deal with the high ball effectively, so if they don’t improve they could see their appearances limited in the big matches for both Scarlets and Wales next season as opposition teams will deliberately target them as Sexton did on Saturday.

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Title Week – May 2018

Title Week – May 2018

Championship week is always going to be a great spectacle in the Schmoedown and this was no exception. The Patriots were looking to remain unbeaten and become the first team to reach 10 wind, but were undone by the trivia juggernaut that is Above the Line, with history being created by “The Inglorious One” Samm Levine becoming the first competitor to hold 2 belts at the same time. Then on Friday, Samm was up to defend his Singles title against “Classy” Clarke Wolfe, who so nearly had victory but lost on the 4th question of Sudden Death. The win makes Samm the first competitor to amass 10 Singles victories (also the first with 7 wins in a row) and also ties Dan Murrell’s record of 2 successful title defences in his first singles title reign.

Before going into the matches, I just want to take a moment to congratulate Samm on his tremendous accomplishments. He may not be the first to have held both belts – John Rocha did this first and then more recently Kristian Harloff – but he is the first to hold them at the same time. Combined with his exploits since 2017’s Free4All, the debate as to who is the GOAT out of him and Murrell gets harder and harder, in fact I may have to go for Levine until Murrell comes back and continues his exploits in the league.

The Patriots 31 – 35 Above the Line

Having lost to the Patriots at Schmoedown Spectacular II, Above the Line were feeling confident in their chances having now watched Remember the Titans. Things were all even on the scoreboard at the end of Round 1, but there was plenty of controversy in Round 1, centering on the 3rd Question.

Asked “Name two of the three films John Carpenter and Kurt Russell made together in the 80s?” the answers given were as follows:

Jeff Sneider: The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China

Drew McWeeny: Big Trouble in little China, Thing

JTE: The Thing, Big trouble in China

Samm Levine: The Thing, Escape from NY

theden
The Lion’s Den have always held at least 1 title, having formed at Schmoedown Spectacular just before the Patriot’s defeat of Top 10

JTE was initially awarded the point before Levine challenged and argued that JTE was incorrect as the title is “Big trouble in Little China”, a challenge which was upheld and could not be argued with. Sneider followed this up with a challenge of his own that Drew should not get the point as he had only put “Thing” rather than “The Thing”, a challenge that was eventually overruled. While I can see where Jeff was coming from that the title is “The Thing” and it is generally known as that, I do agree with Above the Line’s argument that the precedent is in place that the article at the start of a movie title does not need to be included. Eventually the judges ruled that as there is no film called Thing, they would allow the point, which appeared to throw Jeff off for a couple of questions. It wouldn’t surprise me moving forward if the rules are changed to say that the full title must be given, as there have been a number of times this season shortened versions of an answer have been challenged in Round 1. If so, Samm would have likely been in trouble as well for putting NY instead of New York. Granted at the end, the 2 points did not make the crucial difference, but the loss of a challenge certainly did.

Round 2 went the way of the defending champions, with the Patriots answering all their questions right for 10/12 points, while Above The Line’s decision to shoot for 2 points on every question caused them issues as they missed 2 (1 being stolen) and correctly answered 4, including a controversial last question that I’m sure the Patriots would have challenged had they been able to. The question “DiCaprio received his first Oscar nomination co-starring with what actor whose character name was in the film’s title?” is clearly asking for the actor when you read it, but the contestants don’t have that luxury and Samm jumped in with the film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” before realising his mistake and answering “Johnny Depp”. Kristian Harloff asked Samm for his final answer and he correctly gave the actor’s name rather than film title to make it 22-18 to the Patriots at the end of the round. Now personally while I have some sympathy for Levine due to the wording of the question, there was a very clear pause between his initial answer and realising his mistake, though there was no reaction from the judges, so I would personally have not awarded the points had I been at the desk. Had the Patriots been able to challenge, I think it’s very likely Above the Line would have lost the 2 points here.

doublechamp
How does it feel to be a double Champion, Samm?

Round 3 was honours even as both teams bet 3 points and correctly guessed the right answer and then we were on to the Speed Round. JTE usually excels in this round, but he was beaten to the buzzer on all 5 questions, with Samm nailing the first 3 and Drew the 4th, before “The Insneider” kept the Patriots ahead with the final answer of the round. And then it all came down to Round 5. Above the Line went 3/3 on questions from Dance Movies, Crime and Famous Actors & Actresses. Sneider and JTE both answered their questions on Brad Pitt and Dramas respectively, leaving it all coming down to their answer on the 5-point question in a mirror-image of Above the Line’s loss in December. Neither competitor could identify Donald Sutherland and having played the part of Charlize Theron’s father in The Italian Job and the belts passed over to The Inglorious One and The Godfather for history to be made.

I predicted a while back that The Patriots would be hard to beat but that Above the Line were one of the few teams who potentially could, now they need to hold on to the titles. As 6-time defending champions, The Patriots have been granted an automatic rematch at Collider Collision and they will be looking to get their belts back. What we didn’t know was that as the new champions, Above the Line can set the stipulations, so now we are getting the Schmoedown’s second ever Iron Man match. The first, between Napzok and Witwer for the Star Wars belt at Schmoedown Spectacular II was voted the Match of the Year at the 2017 Awards, so to have 2 of the greatest teams in Schmoedown history competing in one is going to be a wonderful spectacle and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it honoured at this year’s awards. Should Above the Line defend their title (and I think they will), I can see them managing a couple of successful defences, but I struggle to imagine anyone matching the achievements. Meanwhile, while I expect The Patriots to hold the title again providing they stay together, but I would love to see them involved in a couple of regular matches as they will be able to go up against different teams. I’m still holding out for The Patriots v Team Action, though I have no idea who I would cheer for in that match!

“The Inglorious One” Samm Levine 19 – 18 “Classy” Clarke Wolfe

titleholdIt may not have been one of the highest scoring matches, but this was a wonderfully tight affair. In Round 1, Clarke Wolfe fell at the final hurdle to miss out on a perfect round, but still led 7-6 as Samm missed on the 4th and 5th questions. The 4th was an odd one as he appeared to mishear Mark Ellis saying “actor slash comedian” as “actress”, resulting in completely the wrong answer. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to rewind and listen back and Ellis is certainly in the clear here with what he said, but as Samm said in his interview with the Schmoedown Rundown, a number of people in the audience heard “actress” too in the Schmoedown equivalent of the Yanny/Laurel debate (it’s definitely Laurel by the way). Kristian offered to check the tape if Samm challenged but the champion chose not to and this decision proved crucial come the end.

Clarke Wolfe spun Sci-Fi/Fantasy in Round 2 and started well with 4 points from her first 2 questions, however she then missed on 2 point attempts on her next 2, picking “rats” and “Argentina” instead of “mice” and “Brazil”, both of which Samm correctly guessed for the steal. Samm has said that as soon as Clarke said “rats” he knew the right answer and I don’t think he would lie about this, but personally as soon as I saw the judges’ reaction as they tried to figure out if her answer was acceptable, I knew it must be “mice” despite having never seen the film. But more on that in a bit. Sam stepped up and spun War movies on his second spin. Sam had 2 points stolen on his first question after his 3rd wrong (Clarke successfully stole for 2 points) before checking down to multiple choice and answering correctly to go level at 13-13.

The controversy continued in Round 3 as Samm spun War movies again and lost 2 points with a wrong answer. Clarke played safe and went for 1 point, and initially got the point with the answer of “they left their post” until Samm challenged and won the challenge as the specific charge was “cowardice”, something that Rocha explained was different. Coming back to the rats/mice debate and these were 2 questions where Samm could have been (he has stated on the Schmoedown Rundown that Clarke’s answers jogged his memory) influenced by the hesitation of the judges as they decide whether a given answer is acceptable. The easy way to sort this would be to have a selection of similar acceptable answers, but that would be resulting in an awful lot more work for Chris Skalicky and his fellow writers).

clarkespeed
Though Round 4 is Samm’s speciality, he lost this round 3-0 against Clarke Wolfe

Regardless of your thoughts, Samm went into his favoured Speed Round with a 3 point lead and I’m sure many people were ready for him to run away with things. Clarke, however is not a title match rookie, having faced Dan Murrell in Season 3 and The Patriots in Season 4 and she had been taking advantage of her Fyffe Club teammates in the build-up by practicing as a faction with the buzzers. The practice worked as she beat Samm to the buzzer on 3 of 5 questions, while Samm’s mind blank on Question 3 cost him the point he had earned 2 questions earlier. The defending Champion’s favourite round had turned against him and his 3 point lead was gone in seconds. Suddenly Clarke Wolfe becoming the first female Schmoedown Champion seemed a possibility. Onto Round 5 and the less that is said about that the better as both competitors selected 3 of the worst categories they could have asked for and failed to answer a question correctly, taking things to Sudden Death with the score at 15-15. Sometimes Sudden Death ends up being an anti-climax as it gets settled on the first question, but this one kept us all glued to the screen as both competitors correctly answered the first 3 questions. And then came the category of Animated films. This category has been a Bane of Samm’s Schmoedown career, but he is such a student of the game he actually went away and watched about 40 animated films, including this answer: The Croods. Clarke could not pull the answer in time and “The Inglorious One” successfully defended his singles title for a second time.

What next for the competitors? Clarke’s next chance of a title will likely be with The Shirewolves, who take on Team Action at the Live Schmoedown in mere days, and I think a Shirewolves v Above The Line title match would be incredible! As for Samm, he will only be defending his Team title at Collision, but we I doubt we will have to wait far beyond that to see him try for 3 successful defences in a row. If he gets that, I think we can firmly name him the GOAT.

 

What did you think of the latest title matches? Will The Patriots win their rematch? Is Samm now the GOAT? Sound off in the comments.

Eyes On: 2018 FA Cup Final

Eyes On: 2018 FA Cup Final

Last weekend was a busy one for sport in the UK. Not only were the semi-finals underway for both the Pro14 and the Premiership, but British hopes looked good with Simon Yates leading the Giro d’Italia and as if that wasn’t enough, The FA Cup final took place on Saturday!

This was by no means the thriller that some previous finals have been, with few real chances actually being created, but Antonio Conte’s Chelsea ran out 1-0 winners over Manchester United, courtesy of Eden Hazard’s penalty, to provide the Italian with some silverware this season in (possibly) his last game in charge.

Rash decisions

Marcus Rashford has become the darling of fans in recent seasons, but he has not had the best couple of months. His minutes have been limited and when he has been started ahead of Romelu Lukaku, his performances through the middle have not matched the level of what he has produced out wide.

With Lukaku only fit enough for the bench, Rashford was given the start up front but was wasteful with the ball, frequently giving it away in the first half with poor passes or tame shots. Though he did improve after half time, he still couldn’t find a way to get the ball in the back of the net, with an attempted chip over Thibaut Courtois in the 72nd minute his best chance, but easily saved after being too low. He was removed just after this last attempt and right now it is hard to imagine him being a big part of José Mourinho’s plans next season considering the need to compete with free-scoring teams like Liverpool and Manchester City.

World Cup worry

I must admit that I was a bit surprised when Phil Jones was named in England’s World Cup squad for this summer. Though he can be a very good player, he is by no means consistent and has been part of a defence that has been bailed out too many times by David de Gea.

Chelsea’s goal lays squarely at Jones’ feet as he did not position himself well to defend against Eden Hazard and was thoroughly beaten by the Belgian’s first touch. Rather than take one for the team and bringing Hazard down about 35 metres out from goal, Jones tried to chase level with him and dived in to try and get the ball away inside the box, missing the ball completely and taking down Hazard to give away the match-winning penalty in the 21st minute.

There were a number of comments that this should have been a red card as he was the last defender, but I personally approve of the amended law that states a player can receive only a yellow card if there is a genuine attempt to win the ball, avoiding the “triple punishment” of a penalty, red card and subsequent suspension.

What worries me here is that Jones will potentially be playing in an England shirt soon against none other than Eden Hazard and Belgium. Hazard knows he has the beating of him and I would be shocked if Belgium don’t try to create 1-on-1 matchups between the pair should Jones feature in that match.

A classy touch

As President of the FA, Prince William would usually be presenting the trophy to the winners, but due to his brother’s wedding earlier in the day, he was unable to make the match (even royals have to miss football for family events). With a need to find someone else to present the trophy this year, I think the FA made the perfect decision.

The FA chose to give the job to Jackie Wilkins, the widow of Ray Wilkins, who passed away in April aged 61. The former England midfielder made over 300 appearances for Chelsea and Manchester United, before going on to help coach Chelsea in 1998-2000 and then 2008-2010, including 2 spells as caretaker manager in 2000 and 2009. For the FA to pay tribute to Wilkins in this fashion was wonderful to see. I have not always agreed with their decisions, but this one was spot on!

Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Yesterday, I took a look at the Pro14, now here are my thoughts on the Premiership games.

Saracens and Wasps were breaking records left right a centre in a 55-7 thriller. Owen Farrell’s set a record for points scored in a semi-final (becoming the first player to break 100 points in Premiership semis), Chris Wyles scored his fifth semi-final try in 8 years in his final season before retiring and the combined 11 tries and 90 points were both records. In the other semi, defending Champions Exeter dominated Newcastle on their way to a 36-5 victory that sees them reach their third consecutive Premiership final.

semirefsNow you may remember I had a little rant yesterday about the performance of John Lacey and his officials. I generally feel that the quality of refereeing in the Premiership is better than the Pro14, however this weekend I was proved wrong. At Allianz Park, JP Doyle and TMO Graham Hughes both went temporarily blind watching the replays and disallowing as they agreed Elliot Daly had grounded the ball against the base of the corner flag, despite the replays clearly showing that the other end of the ball was clearly grounded on the line before the ball rolled against the flag. There were also a couple of tries (for both sides) that JP Doyle chose to award without checking with Doyle despite some questionable passes and some that were definitely forward. For one of the best leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s just not good enough. I really hope the quality of officiating is better at Twickenham on Saturday (if it’s Wayne Barnes refereeing the final then I’m confident it will be).

Saracens 57 – 33 Wasps

When it comes to knockout rugby, it’s so hard to bet against Sarries. They may not have had the best of seasons by their standards, but they turned it on against Wasps to get the win. Owen Farrell has developed over the last few years from a good kicking and defensive 10 to a solid all-rounder who is now able to cause problems for the defence by taking the ball to the line and exploiting any gaps, as he did for Alex Lozowski’s opener. He was fantastic in his Man of the Match performance, nailing every kick off the tee to finish with 27 points (a record for a Premiership semi-final) almost had a try too, only to be held up over the line by Jimmy Gopperth. When you have such a metronomic kicker, having a defence as smothering as the Wolfpack almost makes playing rugby easy. What will peak Exeter’s interest though will be the way Wasps had some luck outside, with Gopperth and Daly both having tries disallowed in the corner and a number of other tries coming from beating the Sarries defence out wide. Given the way that Exeter have been playing recently (more on that later), I imagine that Sarries will be spending some time looking at their wide defence in the build-up to Saturday’s final.

sarwasWasps played some absolutely wonderful rugby in this match, but were simply too wasteful. Though Elliot Daly’s try should have been awarded but for a terrible call by the officials, Jimmy Gopperth should have scored and would have had he grounded the ball with 2 hands rather than putting an arm down to cushion his fall. Frequently they were turned over by a smothering Wolfpack defence as their support was too far away and they struggled at times to match Sarries in the set piece. What really killed Wasps in this match, though, was their defence. Owen Farrell exploited too large a gap between Joe Launchbury and Jake Cooper-Woolley for Lozowski’s try mere minutes into the match, while the Wasps defence struggled to get to terms with Saracens’ strong running close to the ruck, repeatedly losing ground when Sarries attacked the area 1-3 men out from the breakdown. Usually 33 points would be enough to win you a semi-final, especially away from home, but the Wasps defence is just not good enough to keep out the opposition on a regular basis. Can Wasps improve in this area next season? They will need to if they want to make it back to the final.

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Exeter’s dominant style of play is highly effective at inning games, but it’s not going to get much love from Scarlets fans apparently

Exeter 36 – 5 Newcastle

Some people may call it boring, but Exeter’s tactics are certainly effective! The Chiefs do the basics so well and run the ball so hard, they can dominate possession just by hitting the ball up repeatedly in narrow channels until the defence are all drawn in and they can be exploited out wide. This Exeter tactic made them completely dominate the halftime stats, as can be seen in the table below. While it may not be immediately high scoring, as the game wears down there is no way an opposition team cannot be tired out from such a constant defensive effort, and it showed as Exeter got the opening try right before half time through Nic White, before running away with the 2nd half 20-5. It may not be the sexy rugby of Scarlets, but it is effective and wins them games. When it comes to knockout rugby, that’s what matters.

dominant
The halftime stats show just how dominant Exeter were in this game

How could I not feel sorry for Newcastle watching this game? They did such a great job to break into the top 4 at Leicester’s expense and won the most away matches of any team in the Premiership this season, but they just couldn’t get into the game at Sandy Park! They barely touched the ball in the first half and star wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti were starved of ball – the only time I remember Goneva getting the ball was an interception! Fair play to the Falcons, they got a few attacks in the second half and got a try on the board, but it summed up the game for them when Alex Tait dropped the ball over the try line after collecting a cross-field kick in acres of space. I fully expect them to be pushing for the playoffs again next season, but this match showed just how far they still have to go to break into the top 3.

Final thought

This looks set to be a cracking game. Both teams are very similar in the way they rely on solid defence and effective attacking, doing the basics very well. This really could come down to a couple of questions: How long can Billy Vunipola last? Can Joe Simmonds keep his cool on the big stage? Can the Wolfpack stop Exeter’s usual tactics. When these teams met in the semi-final last year, we were treated to a wonderful match ending with Henry Slade’s incredible penalty to touch to set up Sam Simmonds’ winning try. I expect another thrilling match but would argue that Exeter are a better squad than this time last year, so I am going for them to win.

Exeter to beat Saracens

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.

Eyes On: 2017/18 Pro14 Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Pro14 Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Today, I will be looking at the Pro14, but keep an eye out for my thoughts on the Premiership over the next couple of days.

Things started off on Friday evening at Scotstoun, where Glasgow did not turn up until the second half and as a result went down 13-28 to last season’s Pro12 Champions the Scarlets. The Scarlets will be joined in the final by Leinster, who are still on track for a Pro14/Champions Cup double after holding off a late Munster fightback.

laceyBefore I start with my thoughts about the individual matches, I do have one gripe to bring up: Considering these are the semi-finals of 1 of the 3 biggest rugby leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, some of the officiating was absolutely awful! Glasgow were denied a lineout deep in Scarlets territory when John Lacey and his assistant deemed that their restart had was already over the plane of the touchline when Tom Prydie caught the ball in touch (meaning a Scarlets scrum on halfway) only for replays to show that Prydie and the ball were clearly still in play when he caught it and then carried it in to touch. While this alone didn’t cost Glasgow the match, it does not help the team at all getting such a poor decision against them. Hopefully the quality of refereeing will be better in the final.

Glasgow 13 – 28 Scarlets

What a disappointment for Glasgow! After topping the combined table through the season, they didn’t really turn up until around the 50 minute mark, going in 3-21 down at half time. With the new playoff format for the Pro14 including a quarter-final and with them having gone out of the Champions Cup at the pool stages, Glasgow had 3 weeks between their last game and this semi, which probably put them at a slight disadvantage as they had to get back up to the pace of the game compared to the Scarlets, who defeated the Cheetahs in the quarter-finals. While a rest can be good for the players, sometimes it can get too long and my mind couldn’t help but go back to Gloucester in the 2002/3 season, where they won the league by 15 points but after a 3 week rest lost to London Wasps in the final 39-3. Glasgow tried to play their natural attacking game despite the late loss of Stuart Hogg to illness, but could not get things going and little inaccuracies like overthrowing a 5m lineout and a couple of close decisions like Jonny Gray’s disallowed try proved costly and gave the Scarlets the momentum needed to build up an unassailable lead.

proptryThe Scarlets must be becoming every neutral’s favourite team! In knockout rugby, getting points on the board is key so to go to the corner on a kickable penalty is a brave call, but the Scarlets backed it up by scoring within a couple of phases – a lovely finish by Man of the Match Rhys Patchell! From there, it was pure Scarlets rugby as they scored some wonderful tries, the most notable being try number 3, where Rob Evans got on the end of a wonderful counter down the Scarlets left wing. They can hold their own in the set piece and will look to dominate Leinster at the breakdown in in the final despite the loss of John Barclay. They may have been outplayed by Leinster in the semi-final of the Champions Cup, but I expect the rematch on Saturday to be a closer affair.

Leinster 16 – 15 Munster

Leinster’s strength in depth is incredible. Despite Jamie Heaslip’s enforced retirement and missing Sexton, Henshaw, both Kearneys, McFadden, O’Brien, Leavy and van der Flier (yes that’s 3 Irish international 7s missing!), Leinster were still able to play the first 62 minutes with former Australian international Scott Fardy on the bench and come out with a victory against their rivals. Fardy’s impact in defence towards the end was fantastic and young fly halves Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery controlled the game well from 10 and 15 respectively. Carbery was joined in the back line by Jordan Larmour and James Lowe, who is a real star and was a deserved Man of the Match, causing Munster issues throughout the match with his strong but elusive running, his offloads – including a beautiful one to Jack Conan for the opening try – and his kicking. He also almost had a try of his own, only to be put into touch through a lovely try-saver from Sam Arnold. Granted, Leinster are losing a couple of players this summer (Richardt Strauss and the timeless Isa Nacewa are retiring, Jordi Murphy and possibly Carbery/Byrne are on the way to Ulster – more on that in the next couple of weeks) but this looks to be a team set to compete at the top in the long term.

I hope the Scarlets were taking notes watching this game, because Munster may have shown the defending champions how to beat Leinster next weekend. The men in red struggled at times in the scrum but caused the European Champions some real problems at the lineout and the breakdown. Munster’s issue was there wastefulness. They outscored Leinster 2 tries to 1 and came close on a couple of other occasions before giving away penalties, while they also brought a number of moves to a disappointingly early end with a number of poor forward passes. Scarlets have the players to hurt Leinster in the same areas but I would argue they are also much better at playing the open game. Munster may not have got the win themselves, but they may have done enough to give the Scarlets a blueprint to victory.

Final thought

The final is set to be a fantastic affair. Leinster may have the recent head-to-head form in their favour and with the match being at the Aviva they will also have some degree of a home advantage. If Scarlets can get some control in the game – something they failed to o in the Champions Cup – then their attack could cause Leinster some real problems. That said, if Leinster can grab control again (or play the “boring rugby” as a certain Scarlets fan I know has taken to describing it) I can see them strangling the life out of the Scarlets. I honestly feel this could come down to whether Johnny Sexton is fit to play. If he is available I see him being able to control the game and give Leinster the double, otherwise I see Scarlets coming out narrow victors.

Leinster to beat Scarlets (sorry Gez!)

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.